About modesty

I read an article recently which explained that the Christian ideal of female modesty justified sexual assault by making a man’s self-control the responsibility of the woman. My interest today isn’t in offering a lengthy rebuttal to that argument. In fact, I’ll confine myself to noting the Lord’s scathing response to King David over his adultery with Bathsheba, regardless of how he might have been tempted beforehand by her decision to bathe in plain sight of the palace. Clearly, divine appreciation for “she made me do it” excuses hasn’t increased since Adam tried it. Strawmen aside, though, the article’s underlying perspective that encouraging modesty means putting on women a responsibility that rightly belongs to men is one that I’ve seen frequently echoed in recent discussions among Christians.

In some ways, it’s an appropriate correction. There have certainly been segments of evangelical Christianity which have, in practice if not usually in theory, placed very disproportionate responsibility on women for maintaining sexual purity. I still recall hearing a young lady matter-of-factly describe how, when her boyfriend groped her while they were kissing, she would always swat his hand to help him remember (apparently unsuccessfully) not to do it again. It didn’t seem to occur to either of them that the fellow himself might need to exercise some self-control, perhaps with accompanying reading from Matthew 5:30 for motivation. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear some women describe growing up terrified of predatory males whose inevitable lustfulness it was the girl’s job to prevent by becoming a social nullity swathed in protective layers of cloth. So, yes, absolutely: if we forget that the biblical model for men is Joseph with Potiphar’s wife, not David with Bathsheba, then we have gotten things badly off-balance. However, it’s awfully hard to avoid overshooting the mark as the pendulum swings back, and I’m afraid we may be seeing that happen.

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On marriage as a ‘cure’ for lust

My earlier post on sexual purity resulted in a suggestion that I read Douglas Wilson’s Fidelity, which I have found rather thought-provoking. I damn with faint praise when I say it is on the whole one of the more sensible books I’ve read on the subject. There are, however, a number of things which I find troubling about the way Wilson approaches and addresses the issue. One particular disagreement is with Wilson’s view – common to most Christian books on purity – of the sexual component of marriage as a “cure” for sexual sin.

Speaking of lust, Wilson calls “a satisfying sexual relationship” the “specific help offered to married men in Scripture… A man who does not have the gift of celibacy, and who is struggling to maintain his purity should get married at the first opportunity.” Later he writes, “Suffice to say for now that masturbation should not be considered as a ‘cure’ for lust in the same way that a good marriage is” (emphasis mine).

In fairness to Wilson, I should note that he clarifies that “getting married is no automatic solution to the problem of lust” and warns husbands against thinking that “marriage simply means free sex.” However, despite these caveats, Wilson and most Christian writers offer a view of sexual satisfaction within marriage that seems most analogous to a fellow with a desperately full bladder racing against time to find an acceptable spot in which to relieve himself.

My objection to this perspective stems mostly from its tone and emphasis, but I believe it is a significant distinction nonetheless. To begin with, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that such an attitude demeans the wife, both on the abstract and the individual level, by directing such a single-minded focus toward her role as a means of sexual satisfaction. More broadly, one’s view of marriage is similarly distorted and diminished when it is viewed primarily as the holy way to have sex.

Now, the counter-objection could be raised that it is true that a man should derive sexual satisfaction from his wife, and that marriage is the proper framework for such a relationship. Yes, but. A piece of the truth taken in isolation can be treacherous. (It is absolutely true that belief in Christ is necessary to escape spiritual death, but an understanding of faith as nothing more than eternal insurance is vitiated to the point of falsehood.) A blinkered view of marriage and the wife which puts primary importance on sexual fulfillment (a primacy that is affirmed implicitly through emphasis, even if never explicitly) offers a similar danger of magnifying a part to the severe detriment of the whole.

A final problem with this view of marriage as a “cure” for lust is its defeatism. In essence, the unmarried man is exhorted merely to fight a delaying action, taking as few losses as he can, until he is able to duck out of battle by way of the church aisle. “Just try not to fall” is the mantra, and the loftiest goal, of the pre-marriage years. Whether or not this is the view of those Christians who proclaim that marriage is a cure for lust (and I suspect that Wilson, for one, would strongly object to such an interpretation of his comments), I believe it is the understanding of the vast majority of the young Christian men who hear them.

The outcome of such a view is twofold. First, and most obvious, is the young man who either stops trying or doesn’t try at all. Faced with such a daunting challenge, he acquiesces to the apparently inevitable. The second result is less clear cut. This is the young man who is more open to compromise, willing to toss little tidbits to his lust to keep it from devouring him before he can escape into marriage. A quick glance where he shouldn’t, a little soft-core pornography, going a little too far with his girlfriend: the sort of “realistic” accommodations one makes to ease a fight that will soon be over. If you know the enemy is pulling out tomorrow, why spend overmuch effort preventing a minor advance today?

Beyond the obvious results of pain and corruption, the tragedy of such a view of sexual purity is what it leaves out: the possibility of real victory and true growth of character borne of the battle for purity before marriage. Like all of creation, our sexual dimension is a corrupted good. Good as originally created, corrupted by our fallenness. Our task on earth is to restore, by the grace of God and as far as we can, our entire beings (sexuality included) to the Rightness – right orientation to God, man, and all creation – that was our original birthright.

In the sphere of human sexuality, the basic outline of the Right is clearly defined. As I wrote in my previous post, “The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman. In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.”

Of course, the human creature can be taught to love anything, in sex as in anything else, a fact to which the astonishing variety of fetishism bears ample testimony. And in sex as in anything else, if one wants to learn to love the good, one must choose it. Consistently. Of course, the corruption of our sexuality means that such choices will be difficult – more so for some than for others. Yet, there is hope in the fact that each choice against what is not good is correspondingly a choice for what is good, reducing the draw of that which is corrupt while increasing our capacity for joy in what is truly good.

The consequences of this understanding of sexual purity are significant. First, the battle is transformed from a holding action into one of annihilation. One is not trying to hold lust back, but to destroy it, and in destroying it to raise a new and better love in its place. It is a battle in which real victories can and must be won, though the final victory, in the sense of lust’s total annihilation, will not come in this life.

Second, “minor accommodations” take on a whole new light. If the goal is to teach oneself to love the right, rather than the more typical focus on simply avoiding actual intercourse until marriage, the idea of compromise becomes absurd. One cannot willingly allow small accommodations in order to focus on the most important battle, because to allow those small accommodations is to lose the most important battle. (One might observe further, in light of the effect that our choices have on our soul, that such small compromises are the most effective way to undermine a commitment to avoiding premarital intercourse, but an understanding of the corrupting influence of the compromises themselves renders that point almost irrelevant. The fact that slitting one’s wrists leaves them open to dangerous infection is not the best argument against such a course of action.)

In which I eventually get around to discussing sex and purity

As I glanced through one of evangelical Christianity’s best-selling books on male sexual purity this afternoon, I was struck anew by the fact that there is something deeply wrong with the way that this most-important of topics is usually addressed. The book’s central message (illustrated with creepily-gratuitous anecdotes of sexual sin), could be summarized, “To be male is to be inevitably drawn to sexual perversity and misconduct by the almost-irresistible force of your masculine sexual energy. Your job as a Christian is to spend the rest of your life holding back the force of this tide, while using your wife to funnel off as much sexual energy as possible to ease the arduous task of maintaining sexual purity.”

Faced with so overwhelming a task, and one so apparently at odds with one’s most basic nature, it is small wonder so many young men don’t bother to try at all; or, if they do try, end up struggling and exhausted by a task made impossibly strenuous by their misunderstanding.

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Any discussion of sexual purity ought to begin, not with sex, but with morality generally. And any discussion of morality must begin with the self, and the effects of our choices and behavior on our self.

By “the self,” I mean that part of me which I most truly and deeply am; that part which is immortal, who I am now and ever will be, eternity without end. It’s a rather sobering thought, this realization that I cannot escape my self. If you mess up your first car, or your first marriage, it is at least possible to get a new one; not so one’s self.

And “mess up” we can, for the self is in a continual state of transition. In fact, the self changes its own nature, by its own choices, like a block of granite come alive to sculpt itself. Every choice I make shapes my self just a little bit, making me not quite what I was before: piling on something new, stripping off something old, changing the shape of what I am by perhaps imperceptible degrees.

Both good and evil become easier with practice, not merely through habituation, but because the doer is making himself more and more the sort of person for whom such acts come naturally. (And “naturally” is exactly the right word, for it is his very nature which is being shaped by his choices.) The man who beats his children, the boy who pulls the wings off butterflies, and the girl who passes along cruel gossip are all following the same blueprint in their self-transformation; the difference is merely one of degree, rather than kind. We cannot help but be shaped by what we do.

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The tragedy of fallen mankind is the downward spiral in which corrupt choices shape corrupted selves whose further choices can only continue the hopeless pattern. Christian morality offers escape from this pattern, holding out the blueprint for right choices – for the choices that will lead to true joy and meaning in right relationship with God and with our fellow humans – while divine grace makes possible those right choices which would otherwise be impossible for our broken selves.

And because right choices, like evil, shape the self, this divinely-enabled right conduct will inevitably result in selves for whom goodness is increasingly pleasant. The man who loves his neighbor because he ought soon finds himself loving his neighbor merely because he does!

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And this brings us back to where we started, on the topic of sexual purity. The divine rule as regards sex is fairly simple: It is a good which is to be enjoyed within the bounds of a marriage between a man and a woman.

In other words, when humans were invented as sexual beings, that was how sex was supposed to work; what it is designed to be. For a properly-functioning human creature – either male or female – this is what is best. What is natural. What offers highest joy and highest pleasure, in the fullest sense of the words. Anything else can only be corruption and diminution, because that is all that evil can offer.

Of course, this means that sexual purity would be terribly easy, if only we were properly-functioning human creatures. Unfortunately, even after turning towards Christ, the process by which we are straightened and restored is a slow and at-times-painful one. In the meantime, in sex as in the rest of our lives, we find ourselves in love with what is lesser, meaner, and lower. The desire is no less real for being unnatural and deathly. Like a falcon that has been taught to seek only rotting carrion, our own corrupted desires betray us.

This is where so many Christians, with the best intentions, fail to make a crucial distinction. When a man views pornography, for example, he is not acting out of a natural masculinity that must be suppressed for the sake of righteousness. Rather, he is dining on rotten, maggoty carrion unawares. And so long as he gluts on what is lower, he is ingraining ever deeper in himself a distaste for what is truly good and an appetite for what is death to him. This is why the excuse, “I’ll stop viewing pornography once I’m married” would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Oh no, he won’t stop, not for long, for he has just spent years making himself exactly the sort of person who needs pornography. Marriage will not – can not – make him a different person than what he has himself created.

However, there is a flip side that offers tremendous hope to those who struggle with sexual sin. For just as choosing what is corrupt cannot help but cultivate one’s appetite for what is lower, so also, choosing – by the grace of God – what is higher will create a love for what is higher and better. (A love which grows more naturally and swiftly because of the goodness of its object.) The man who chooses not to view pornography, or have extramarital sex, or sin sexually in some other way, is not only not sinning at the moment of his choice, but is inexorably making himself the sort of man who loves what is actually good and so will make the right choice tomorrow as well.

None of this is to say that it is easy to be sexually virtuous. Far from it. The choices to which I just so casually referred are agonizingly difficult, particularly in a culture in which most young men are exposed to sexual perversion so early that they have developed a taste for it before they really even understand what it is. “Oh, but God will help me.” Yes, He will. That doesn’t mean the choice will be easy – it means what would otherwise be impossible will be possible. Barely.

It’s a choice that must be made daily, again and again, and one which is particularly difficult initially, as the grooves and pits worn in the self by unnatural appetites are destroyed. However, those who try can know two things: The change is possible, by the grace of God, if we will only choose it. And when the choice is made, it will result in the sort of man who loves what is good; what is natural; what is real.